Tim Jernigan

Fletcher Cox back to his dominating ways as Eagles win showdown

Fletcher Cox back to his dominating ways as Eagles win showdown

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Last June, the Eagles handed Fletcher Cox a six-year, $102.6 million extension. 

He was worth every penny on Thursday night.

After missing two games with a calf injury, Fletcher Cox wasn't just active for the Eagles' 28-23 road win over the Panthers (see 10 observations). He was dominant. 

"S---, it felt good," his fellow defensive tackle Tim Jernigan said. "It felt like he's back to his normal self. Dominating, doing what he do."

Cox came into Thursday night as a game-time decision — he had missed two straight games and hadn't played since leaving the Giants game — but after testing out his calf during pregame warmups, the Eagles decided to play him. 

If Cox was healthy enough to play, he was going to play in Thursday's battle of 4-1 teams. 

"He was playing," head coach Doug Pederson said. "There was no way I could sit him tonight. This was too important of a game."

With Cox's help, the Eagles improved to 5-1 and have the best record in the entire NFC. Without Cox, that would have been much harder on Thursday night. 

The Pro Bowl defensive tackle finished with two tackles, half a sack, two quarterback hits and one pass defensed (see breakdown). More importantly, he was an absolute force inside. The same force the Eagles have come to expect from him over the last few years. 

"It felt good just to be back out there, to be back with my teammates," Cox said. "Felt pretty good and went out and finished the ballgame, which was the most important thing."

Cox's biggest play of the game came in the second quarter when the Panthers were clinging to a 10-3 lead. On 3rd-and-5, Cox looked like he had Carolina right guard Trai Turner on roller skates. Cox pushed the 315-pound guard like he was a bundle of feathers right into Cam Newton's lap. 

That forced a bad throw that was intercepted by Rasul Douglas (see rookie report). The Eagles scored a touchdown seven plays later to tie the game at 10-10. 

"I just bulled the guard into the quarterback's lap and went after the throwing arm," Cox said. "I actually thought it was a strip but I turned around and saw Rasul get the ball. Every play is a big play, especially plays like that."

Cox thought he got a strip sack, while Chris Long was on the field and thought he got a good enough jump to maybe get a sack of his own. 

But Cox beat him to the quarterback.

"Of course, Fletch is just bullying the guard," Long said, "And he's just that type of game-changing player. He can absolutely alter every play on the field."

Cox was a big reason why Newton threw three interceptions on Thursday and he was a big reason why the Panthers had just nine rushing yards that didn't come from their quarterback. 

The thing is, the Eagles' defensive line actually played pretty well in the last two weeks without Cox. Beau Allen filled in and did a fine job. Jernigan started to play at another level. And the rotation seemed to work. 

But they didn't have Cox. And he's almost impossible to replace. 

"He's so dominating in there, pushing the pocket, run and pass, and it was great to have him out there tonight," Pederson said. "He's another one of those leaders on the team that you lean on. He battled through his injury, put that aside for the team tonight and did an outstanding job."

Eagles' winning blueprint: Run the ball, stop the run, control the clock

Eagles' winning blueprint: Run the ball, stop the run, control the clock

It's hard to imagine a more effective blueprint for winning football games.

Rush for 176 yards per game, hold your opponent to 46 rushing yards per game, control the clock.

That's it.

It's not complicated. It's not fancy. But it sure works.

The Eagles kind of fell into this blueprint by accident. Coming out of the Chiefs game, head coach Doug Pederson hadn't yet committed to the run, but he gave the ball to LeGarrette Blount early against the Giants, and Blount responded. And the veteran running back and the ground attack haven't slowed down since.

The same formula has repeated itself three weeks in a row now, and the Eagles are 4-1 because of it.

Giants? Eagles ran for 193 yards, allowed 49 rushing yards, held the ball for 37:32.

Chargers? Eagles ran for 214 yards, allowed 58 rushing yards, held the ball for 39:18.

Cards? Eagles ran for 122 yards, allowed 31 rushing yards, held the ball for 35:47.

Three wins, three dominating performances by both lines.

This is only the sixth time in franchise history the Eagles have put together three consecutive games with 120 or more rushing yards while allowing 65 or fewer rushing yards. They did it four games in a row over the 1944 and 1945 seasons.

And despite not doing much running the first two weeks of the season, the Eagles are now fifth in the NFL in rushing yards along with second in rush defense.

Combine those two strengths, and you're going to control the clock. And the Eagles are best in the NFL in doing that, averaging a league-best 35:32 in time of possession. Control the clock and most of the time you're going to control the game.

Simple. Elegant. Effective.

And what's really impressive is that the Eagles are running the ball despite missing Darren Sproles (along with Donnel Pumphrey and this past weekend Wendell Smallwood). They're grinding out the rushing yards with a 30-year-old tailback who's with his fourth team in six years and didn't get a single carry in Week 2.

And they're stopping the run without Fletcher Cox. Tim Jernigan, unwanted by the Ravens, has been a beast in the interior of the line, and Beau Allen has been solid as well.

Five weeks in, the Eagles have more than twice as many rushing yards (694) as they've allowed (314).

They're the first team to rush for at least 690 yards and allow fewer than 315 after five games since the 2000 Ravens (who happened to win a Super Bowl) and only the 12th in NFL history (and seventh since 1950) to boast that kind of disparity at this point in the season.

Run the ball. Stop the run. Control the clock.

You just can't beat that combination.

This is the first time in 27 years the Eagles have held the ball over 35 minutes for three straight games.

When the Eagles rush for 120 or more yards while allowing 65 or fewer yards, they've won 22 straight games (dating back to a 21-20 loss to the Cowboys in 2005), and they're 47-3 since 1992.

The Eagles upgraded both lines this offseason, and upgraded at running back, and it's all paying off.

"It's been a good recipe for us in the last few ballgames," Pederson said Monday. "I think it's important … to establish the run in football games to start. It just helps our offense, helps our offensive line settle into games. And when you see your defense, the three-and-outs that they have and stopping the run, it can frustrate an opponent as it would us when you can't run the ball.

"So both have really contributed to the success that we've had these last few games, and our offensive line has done a really nice job at rising to the challenge against some really good defensive fronts, too."

The Eagles piled up 193 and 214 rushing yards on the Giants and Chargers, and even though the Cards have been statistically very good against the run, Pederson really committed to the ground attack, and Blount responded with 68 of his 74 yards in the second half.

When we talk about a team's identity, I think of it meaning a style of playing that doesn't change week to week and doesn't depend on the opponent and doesn't even depend on what players you have in uniform that day.

You find what you do well, and you do it against everybody. And you keep doing it. That's where the Eagles are right now. It's a winning formula.

These last three weeks, no opposing back has rushed for more than 35 yards against the Eagles, and in each game, Blount has averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry.

The Eagles are only the 13th team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966 — the first since the 2007 Jaguars — to put together a three-game stretch at any point during a season with 520 or more rushing yards gained and 140 or fewer rushing yards allowed.

It's a roadmap for success, and as long as Pederson follows that map, the Eagles are going to keep winning.

Eagles Mailbag: Free agents to-be; 5 players they can't lose

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Eagles Mailbag: Free agents to-be; 5 players they can't lose

It's hard to believe we're already through a quarter of the 2017 season. Time is flying. 

And thanks to the Thursday night game in Carolina next week, the Eagles will be through six games by this time next week. 

Let's hop into your questions: 

Yeah, it's a little early for this. But so far, it looks like the Eagles will be interested in signing both of these players long term. Sure, Alshon Jeffery's numbers haven't been great but he's gone against some great corners and he hasn't really clicked with Carson Wentz just yet. The Eagles tried to downplay the issue of their chemistry all summer, but now it looks like there was something to that. Jeffery still has the skills to be a top receiver in this league. 

Meanwhile, Jernigan is playing so well, he might price himself right out of Philadelphia. If he continues to have a big season, the Eagles are going to have a tough decision to make because he might demand some big money on the free agent market. He has proven he can play in a passive 3-4 system as well as an aggressive 4-3 like Jim Schwartz runs. 

If either of these two guys walk after the season, the Eagles will need to replace them. Beau Allen is also set to become a free agent, so the Eagles will definitely need help at defensive tackle. That's tricky, though, because their other defensive tackle, Fletcher Cox, will have a $17.9 million cap hit in 2018. 

With LeGarrette Blount on a one-year deal, the Eagles might need to bring in another running back. Another key free agent will be linebacker Nigel Bradham. He played very well in 2016 but is off to a rough start this season. 

"Why do we fall, Bruce?" 

I get why some fans want to forget about last season and move on, but it's important for the Eagles to learn from their mistakes. This week, there has been a lot of talk from last year and it's not hard to figure out why. For the second straight season, the Eagles started with a 3-1 record. This is about the time of the year where things went downhill in a hurry in 2016. The Eagles obviously need to avoid that type of free fall this year. 

This time around, it looks like they'll have Lane Johnson for the entire season. That makes a big difference. Don't overlook the fact that since the start of the 2016 season, the Eagles are 8-2 with him and 2-8 without him. 

Well, Cox is already out right now, so that's why I'm leaving him off the list. But the five aside from him: Wentz, Jason Peters, Zach Ertz, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Jenkins. 

It was tough leaving Brandon Graham off this list. He was the toughest omission because he starts so much of their pass rush, but the team can replace him with a first-round pick. That wouldn't be awful. 

Wentz is the obvious one. Nick Foles is a good backup quarterback but the Eagles can't lose Wentz. Peters is defying everything we know about age. He continues to play at a high level. If they lost Peters, Lane Johnson could fill in but then Big V would be at right tackle. Ertz is the best tight end in football right now and everything on offense has been running through him. Hicks is a very good middle linebacker and is responsible for the calls on defense. And Jenkins never gets enough credit. He's a leader on the back end. He's a great safety and can even come down and play in the slot. Those are my five. 

Yeah, that's the way it works. When a team is forced to forfeit their pick, it just goes right to the next one. I guess that is unfair to potential draft picks but there's always fluctuation in the number of draft picks because of the compensatory selections. 

Undrafted players and late-round draft picks don't really get paid much differently. The real difference is the amount of guaranteed money, which isn't a little thing. But undrafted free agents have the ability to choose their destination. So if two teams want to sign them, they can pick the better fit. They'd obviously rather hear their name called, but it's not the end of the world if they don't. 

Yeah, Graham didn't have his best game against the Chargers. But he wasn't bad either. I think we've all just become used to him constantly getting pressure. He'll have a real chance to get something going this weekend. The Cardinals' right tackle, Jared Veldheer, has struggled and Carson Palmer has been sacked an NFL-high 17 times (see 5 matchups to watch)